In honor of Women’s History Month, the O’Neill School is using our March blogs as a platform to highlight the women of O’Neill, including students, faculty, and alumni, and their work to make a difference in our communities.
By Sheila Kennedy, O’Neill Professor Emeritus of Law and Public Policy (retired)
The path that led me to the Paul O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs was also the path of progress for women in the workforce. That progress owes a great deal to the women who came before me and imposes an obligation to be there for those who follow.
I went to law school in 1971. There were fewer than 10 women in my class of more than 190 students—and I only knew three women lawyers. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had been established only six years before, in 1965, and I think it’s fair to say that social attitudes about women in the profession remained fairly negative. I was the first woman hired by the law firm I joined upon graduation, and a number of male lawyers made it fairly clear they considered a female lawyer distinctly unfeminine, if not deranged.
One of the women who served as a role model for me in those early days was Carlyn Johnson. Carlyn was already a respected lawyer, an expert in Indiana education law, and a Professor at what was then just the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. We maintained a friendship through my early days of practice, and during my stint as the Executive Director of the Indiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Carlyn and I twice team-taught the graduate Law and Public Affairs course.
When Carlyn decided to retire, she told me I should apply for her job—and after some hesitancy, I did. I was pleasantly surprised to find several other women on faculty within the school, representation that was much rarer in academia then. To the extent I was looked at askance, it was because my terminal degree was a J.D., not a Ph.D. There was an (erroneous) perception that lawyers would be less likely to engage in scholarly research.
That anti-lawyer bias was finally overcome when, several years into my tenure, I was introduced to Suzann Lupton, a brilliant lawyer who was considering a change of career. Just as Carlyn had recruited me, I recruited Suzann, who has proven to be an enormously popular professor and a huge asset to the O’Neill School.
In the business and professional worlds, networking is immensely important. People find out about job opportunities through socialization and through people they know. For a long time, that reality disproportionately benefitted men. Women’s progress has relied upon the ability and willingness of women professionals to connect with others, to identify talented prospects, and to encourage them.
I’m happy to note that my own experience as a link between then and now has been mirrored broadly through American society—and the makeup of business organizations and professions has changed dramatically, and for the better, as a result.